3 Cultural Differences: Foreigners Working in China (2022)
Doing business in China is unlike doing business in any other place in the world. China is well known for its truly unique culture, especially when contrasted with most Western cultures.
Succeeding in the Chinese workplace and business world thus requires a strong and deep cultural intelligence: understanding people from different cultures and how to best interact with them.
We choose to focus on 3 important concepts foreigners should understand to work or do business in China:
The notion of face
Collectivism versus individualism
Patience versus perseverance
1) The notion of face
What is face in China?
In China, face is a powerful social symbol based on your attractiveness, your skills, your friends, and the amount of money you have. It's an indicator of respectability, dignity, status, and authority.
Interestingly, face applies to companies and individuals. As such, Chinese people use it as an indicator of trustworthiness and reliability for companies, and as an illustration of an individual’s status in social networks, known under the name of Guanxi.
Face can be earned, lost, and given
Giving face to a person can be done by giving gifts or complimenting an employee in front of a team for example. On the other hand, face can be lost in a situation of public failure or embarrassment and is strongly linked to hierarchy.
In China, employees might keep the information or negative feedback from their superiors to avoid making them lose face. This may result in them not “openly telling you if you are wrong”, which can compromise overall communication and transparency throughout companies.
2) Collectivism versus Individualism
China has a collectivist culture, where group cohesion and collaboration take priority over individuals' personal needs. In individualist cultures, the focus would be set on your personal needs over those of groups (i.e your colleagues and team members in the workplace).
Collectivism in China
In the Chinese organizational culture, collectivism is far more valued than individualism: overall harmony is more important than individual harmony. It's the path to follow to reach objectives. If you want to succeed as an individual in the Chinese workplace, immerse yourself in the group and attract as less attention as possible.
In other words, go with the flow, focus on the common objective, on the group’s well-being, and most importantly, don't try to attract too much attention. According to a Chinese proverb: “it is the sticking-out rafter that rots first”.
3) Straightforwardness vs. Indirect manoeuvres
In some cultures, such as the American culture, for instance, straightforwardness signals competitiveness and self-assurance and efficiency. This is also the case in Germany and the Netherlands for example, where we usually cut right to the chase and rarely take the time to sugar-coat feedback and ideas.
Indirect manoeuvres in China
In China, on the other hand, indirect manoeuvres are the way to go: even if more time-consuming, they are viewed as more polite and respectful. In many cases, beating around the bush is better than being straightforward.
Indeed, being direct in China could come across as rude, overbearing and aggressive. However frustrating this may be for straightforward individuals, it's an important factor to take into account when collaborating with Chinese counterparts and giving them feedback for instance. Remember the importance of face!
4) Patience versus perseverance
In the US and some European countries, perseverance is often considered a quality. When a business deal doesn’t work out or we cannot come to an agreement with a potential partner, we tend to insist and put effort into finding a solution. Not trying to find a solution may be perceived as "giving up".
Patience in China
In China, most individuals believe things happen for a reason. According to her, in China, many initiatives are about (Hoeks, 2014). To them, waiting and being patient is sometimes the best option. This can be a huge shock for Westerners and their way of planning business operations and managing their agendas.
In fact, according to Hoeks, “Bringing your checklist and deadlines to China, you will have a difficult time” (2014). It couldn’t have been saying better: in China, patience is one of the best skills or qualities you will absolutely have to bring with you. It’s one of the keys to success.
Li Yue (2011). Cross-Cultural Communication within American and Chinese Colleagues in Multinational Organizations.
Valerie Hoeks (2014). Cultural difference in business. TEDxHaarlem